Dispensationalism Defined

by Kevin Hartley

A system of theological dogma is fundamentally identified by its view of God’s relationship to men. Dispensationalism, as a system, has a specific view of this relationship. The most fundamental, distinctive presupposition of Dispensationalism is its tenet that affirms the continuing existence of the nation of Israel in the redemptive plan of God into the church age and beyond. Charles Ryrie has written:

A dispensationalist keeps Israel and the church distinct… This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist … the one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church consistently will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and one who does will.”1

It can be said that Dispensationalism defines God’s relationship with men in one of two ways due to ethnic identification. If a man is a Jew, God has a particular economy of redemption for that person, and if he is not, God has a different means to the redemption of that person. The use of the term redemption is broad, speaking to the design and implementation of salvation in its consummate usage from beginning to the conclusion of all things. This does not necessarily mean that God has a different soteriological design for Israel from the church, but rather that in the accomplishment of their salvation, God relates to Israel one way and to the church another way. Much has been made of the early charges against classic Dispensationalists; that they define two plans of salvation between God and men. Robert L. Saucy writes, “dispensationalists have more recently been careful to explain that the progression in the dispensations involves no change in the fundamental principle of salvation by grace.”2 This progress in dispensational theology is erasing the early acrimony aroused by overt statements of discontinuity in the plan of God.

Whatever form Dispensationalism takes, it is always distinguishable by this most fundamental presupposition, that it purports an abiding distinction between peoples based upon ethnicity. Historic or classic Dispensationalism held this tenet; neo or revised Dispensationalism affirmed this thought, and progressive Dispensationalism holds this presupposition. Dispensationalism is Dispensationalism because it is built upon this most fundamental presupposition that God relates to ethnic Israel one way and to all other men another. Some have sought to identify Dispensationalism upon broader terms or theological distinctions. Charles Ryrie asserts that there are three distinct presuppositions of Dispensationalism: the distinctive of Israel, the literal hermeneutic, and the emphasis upon God’s glory, yet both the hermeneutic and the emphasis are contingent upon the presupposed truth that God relates to Israel one way and to all others another way. Their hermeneutic is a result of their belief that Israel, as a nation, has a lasting and abiding place in the plan of God beyond Christ’s first advent. Their emphasis upon the glory of God is couched in terms of God’s dichotomized relationship. Thus, Dispensationalism is distinct in its hermeneutical method because of how it understands God’s relationship to men. Its emphasis upon the glory of God is answered in reference to that relationship. Robert L. Saucy writes, “The fundamental issue between Dispensationalists and non-Dispensationalists is neither a basic hermeneutical principle nor the ultimate purpose of human history.”3 A Dispensationalist, no matter how you adorn him, when he is stripped down to his most innermost garment, is found clad with one item of clothing, the vestry, colored with the premise that God continues his relationship with Israel in terms of the old covenant into the Christian age and beyond.

A Dispensationalist, then, is simply a person that perpetuates the physical distinctive of the old covenant into the apostolic age and beyond. In Dispensationalism, the covenant made with Israel at Mount Sinai is a watershed event in redemptive history that has an enduring place in God’s plan. At Mount Sinai, God established a relationship with the physical descendants of Jacob that cannot be simply spiritualized away, did not pass to a different people, and cannot vanish away. Though it may have ipso facto influence upon the church, it remains a covenant of ethnic distinction. It is at Mount Sinai that God determined to deal with an identifiable nation and people based upon their ethnic distinction, and that purpose has a consummate goal in the salvific plan of God. A Dispensationalist, when asked how it is that God relates to men, must affirm there is a distinct difference in relationship, contingent upon one’s ethnic origin. He may agree on matters of biblical continuity, law and grace, and covenant, but always and only as it adheres to his basic presupposition. The remainder of this chapter defines the various historic stages of Dispensationalism based upon this presupposition.

Classic Dispensationalism
Classic Dispensationalism originally drew a very definitive line between Israel and the church. Curtis L. Crenshaw states, regarding classic Dispensationalism: “Israel on the earth and the church in heaven, and ‘the twain shall never meet…’”4 In classic Dispensationalism, God’s relationship with Israel as an ethnic group was established on earth and would continue to be unfolded and consummated upon earth. God’s relationship with the church and those outside of Israel was in heaven and would consummate there. Thus, God’s relationship was determined by ethnicity and was administered in terms of locale. God’s eternal plan of redemption had two manifest ends, one in heaven and one on earth. Craig A. Blaising writes:
Perhaps the most important feature of classical dispensationalism is its dualistic idea of redemption. In order to understand the Bible, one needed to recognize that God was pursuing two different purposes, one related to heaven and one related to the earth. These two purposes affected God’s dealings with humanity.5

In fact, these two purposes did more than affect God’s dealings with humanity; they defined God’s dealings with humanity. It was the presupposition of classic Dispensationalism that God’s relationship to men was based upon their ethnic distinction.

In its infancy, Dispensationalism held its presupposition in its most definitive form. One might argue that classic Dispensationalism, though natal, was at its most innocent and honest expressive form. It had not yet disputed with its theological opponents, and it was not polished and mature in its expression. It simply had an identity and held that identity in its most plain and pure form. Israel was God’s people on earth, and the church would be God’s people in heaven. God had an eternal, earthly plan with earthly Israel and an eternal, heavenly plan with the church. The two were separate and distinct groups with two distinct plans of redemption. A clear line of distinction and discontinuity was drawn between Israel and all other peoples. In this fundamental tenet, prepubescent Dispensationalism affirmed its own identity unabashedly. God purposed to relate to an ethnically distinguished people one way on account of their ethnic identity, and he purposed to relate to all other people in another way. One notes that all other theologies do not deny that God has dealt with Israel and others in distinction, but what they do deny is that such a distinction is the consummation of God’s plan and purpose and that it is the fundamental and eternal designation defining how God relates to men.

Classic Dispensationalism, like all dogmas, built its hermeneutic upon its presupposition. Charles C. Ryrie would have us believe that his literal hermeneutic is the factor that leads to his distinction of Israel. This though is not the case.
The Dispensational hermeneutic is born out of its presupposition. It approaches the text predisposed to interpret Scripture based upon its belief that ethnic Israel was, and remains, distinct from other peoples. If this were not the case, and if Ryrie was correct, then his point would be the undoing of all other theological presuppositions. The Dispensationalist reads that the land of Palestine is to be owned by ethnic Israel, and though he may see it typologically portrayed in the church or partially fulfilled in the church, still he affirms it must be ethnically fulfilled on earth. Meanwhile a non-Dispensationalist can read the same promise and hear the book of Hebrews speak of that land as heavenly, but he arrives at a far different conclusion. Is it because the non-Dispensationalist does not possess a truly biblical hermeneutic? No, but the Dispensationalist and non-Dispensationalist are working from different assumptions. Ryrie himself affirms this point noting, “We spiral from our predispositions and hermeneutics to the exegesis of Scripture and developing our theology, and then cycle through again …”6

The classic Dispensational hermeneutic has grown out of its prevailing presupposition. Craig A. Blaising wrote,

They believed that if the Old Testament were interpreted literally, then it would reveal God’s earthly purpose for the earthly people. However, if it were interpreted spiritually (which they usually termed ‘typologically’), then it would reveal God’s spiritual purpose for a spiritual people.7

The Scripture has its first application to ethnic Israel and God’s earthly purpose, and the church’s place in Scripture is matter-of-fact. Since Israel came first in the redemptive act of God, and it was the first relationship defined between God and men, it holds a preeminent place in redemptive history, biblical interpretation, and the fundamental premise of Dispensationalism. Classic Dispensationalists placed a greater emphasis upon the earthly purpose of God with Israel, over and above the heavenly purpose of God with the church. The church was seen as a parenthesis or intercalation, to some degree an insertion of a distinct relationship between God and men unlike that previously established in God’s earthly purpose. The church was, to some degree, an interruption in the predominant relationship of God with Israel.

Inherent within Dispensationalism is the abiding relegation of the church to the backseat of God’s redemptive plan. Most Dispensationalists would probably refute this charge; yet, to a degree, in the mind of every kind of Dispensationalist, Israel has the more important role in the scheme of progressive revelation. This has a direct bearing on the emphasis of their theology. It is more forward and less attentive to addressing and explaining the Christian life. Since Israel’s place in history precedes the church, the church stands in Dispensationalism, consciously or not, as subordinate in emphasis. Greater attention is given to Israel’s place in redemptive history than is given to the church, though this is not necessarily a conscious intention of Dispensationalism. Like the story of the prodigal son, the elder son has a different relationship to the father than the younger son has, and one relationship has a more prevailing importance in the mind of the reader. God’s primary purpose in biblical history, for a Dispensationalist, is Israel, and that is manifested first and foremost here on earth. In its nativity, Dispensationalism asserted this in its most germane and blatant form. Like a child, it lacked the eloquence that later revisions in Dispensationalism have learned. Yet, while it has grown up, Dispensationalism (affirming that God relates to Israel one way and to the church in another way) will always maintain this theological bias.

Revised Dispensationalism
Every revision of Dispensationalism since its infant form has simply been a maturation of its earliest expressions. A child evidences his personality early in life and continues to bear a resemblance to his early persona throughout his days as he learns how to relate to life and others. Dispensationalism has done much the same; its encounter with opposition from Federalism has led to revision of its early expression. When examined in its adolescence, however, it is still the same person it was as a child. Revised Dispensationalism remains Dispensationalism because it affirms the same presupposition as classic Dispensationalism. It may express that presupposition differently, but it still affirms the same fundamental distinctive that makes it Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism, much like federal theology, has grown up within its environment, and that has affected its expression. It has had to contend most with its uncle, Federalism, and it has had to struggle within itself to answer its own questions of identity. In its adolescent form, it expressed itself far differently from its early self. Much like a child, it became more informed and better suited to answer many of its early statements. Revised Dispensationalism is a more cogent expression of the dispensational presupposition.

Perhaps the most important revision of classic Dispensationalism in its revisionist days was its soteriological reformulation. Craig A. Blaising states it this way: “There will be an eternal distinction between Israel and the church, not in metaphysically distinctive kinds of salvation, but in name – the church is always the church, Israel is always Israel.”8 This statement expresses one reason for the reformulation of early Dispensationalism. There was a backlash against a system of theology that was construed as treating Israel differently in relation to salvation. Where classic Dispensationalism expressed its presupposition in terms of earthly and heavenly discontinuity, revised Dispensationalism expressed that same presupposition in terms of greater cohesion. The church is not as much of an intercalation in God’s redemptive plan. Classic Dispensationalism saw the church as an interruption in God’s earthly scheme, but in revised Dispensationalism it was given a place in the plan and purpose of God. The fundamental change in the revision of classic Dispensationalism was to bring the church into a more coherent role with Israel in God’s plan of redemption. Charles Ryrie has written, “Dispensational theology, while recognizing definite and distinguishable distinctions, asserts the basic unity of the unfolding plan of God in the Scriptures.”9 Ryrie’s statement demonstrates the unmodified presupposition in revised Dispensationalism. Israel and the church remain distinct.

Classic Dispensationalism held that God related to Israel based upon its earthly ethnical distinction, but related to the church otherwise. Revised Dispensationalism has not denied, modified, or replaced that presupposition. The church and Israel are still distinct in the plan of God, and how he relates to men is contingent upon this distinction. Revised Dispensationalism is a system of theology that states that God deals with ethnic Israel one way and all other peoples in another. Israel maintains its place of preeminence in God’s redemptive plan, even though the church is given a place in that plan. Revised Dispensationalism does teach one plan of salvation in Jesus Christ, variously administered, this is true. It does teach greater continuity in relationship to that plan as it speaks to God’s relationship with Israel and the church, that, as well, is true; however, revised Dispensationalism continues to affirm: “In the New Testament natural Israel and the Gentiles are contrasted.”10 The presupposition of Dispensationalism, classic or revised, remains unchanged.

Progressive Dispensationalism
Developments in Dispensationalism over the past twenty years have been along the lines of reformulating its understanding of the issue of biblical continuity and discontinuity, similar to the changes from classic to revised Dispensationalism. Dispensationalism has gradually moved from a position of discontinuity to one of greater continuity. Yet discontinuity and continuity mean two different things to a Federalist and Dispensationalist, just as the coined phrase already-but-not-yet means something different to each. Advances in Dispensationalism, bearing the title Progressive Dispensationalism, have given greater nuance to the theology of Dispensationalism. These advances have brought further cohesion to God’s redemptive plan, but the fundamental presupposition of Dispensationalism, from its early expression to this most recent expression, remains unchanged. Progressive Dispensationalism is Dispensationalism because it begins with the premise of distinction for ethnic Israel lasting into the Christian era and beyond. Craig A. Blaising affirms this, when he says, “Progressive dispensationalists agree with revised (and classical) dispensationalists that God’s work with Israel and Gentile nations in the past dispensation looks forward to the redemption of humanity in its political and cultural aspects. Consequently, there is a place for Israel and for other nations in the eternal plan of God.”11 The question of how God relates to men is still answered by the progressive Dispensationalist in one of two ways: Israel or not Israel.

As long as the fundamental presupposition remains unchanged in Dispensationalism, all the noble strides at erasing differences between Federalism and Dispensationalism will only go so far. In order for union to come, one side would have to abandon its presupposition. Vern Poythress notes, “In the dispute between dispensationalism and covenant theology, both sides cannot be right.”12 Progressive Dispensationalism would like to define its advances as germane to the tensions raised regarding eternal salvation. It was what Craig A. Blaising calls “a holistic and unified view of eternal salvation.”13 For a Federalist, biblical continuity remains distinctly different from the holistic and unified view of progressive Dispensationalism. The reason is that both cannot agree upon the basic fundamental designation of the manner in which God relates to men. For the Federalist, the covenant scheme remains the definitive mark of his theology. The Dispensationalist, whether classic, revised, or progressive, continues to define that relationship by ethnicity. While they have removed the discontinuity of locale and have raised the church in the plan of God to respectability, they still affirm abiding differences in the economy of God based upon ethnic and national distinction.

Progressive Dispensationalism is Dispensationalism redefined in terms of God’s purpose and plan, in history, between two distinct peoples with one singular purpose. In classic Dispensationalism that distinction was given a dual locale in heaven and earth. In revised Dispensationalism that locale was removed but the division of purpose remained. Now, in progressive Dispensationalism the plan of God is unified. Again Craig A. Blaising declares, “Progressive dispensationalists understand the dispensations not simply as different arrangements between God and humankind, but as successive arrangements in the progressive revelation and accomplishment of redemption.”14 One can see in this statement that the progress of Dispensationalism has been within itself. It has been an advance in its theology and basic premise. Thus, while advances have been made within Dispensationalism, those advances cannot extend beyond the boundary of its presupposition. Robert L. Saucy writes of progression in Dispensationalism: “Contrary to non-dispensationalism, the term Israel is not finally applied to all of God’s people irrespective of nationality. Rather it retains its meaning for a particular people in accordance with the early covenants and promises of Scripture.”15 For any Dispensationalist, God relates to men either as Israel or not Israel, and this remains a distinctive in every biblical stage of redemption.

The Matter of Doctrine
John Gerstner’s controversial text, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism, sought to affirm Dispensationalism as an aberration of orthodoxy. He went to great lengths to equate Dispensationalism with antinomianism and Arminianism, even going so far as to call Dispensationalism heresy. He concluded his book with this call: “My plea to all dispensationalists is this—show me the fundamental error in what I teach or admit your own fundamental error. If you are wrong (in your doctrine, as I here charge), you are preaching nothing less than a false gospel.”16 While his words were met by a vitriolic reaction by Dispensationalists and non Dispensationalists alike, much of what Dr. Gerstner wrote has merit. A form of Arminianism has been prevalent among Dispensationalists. John Zens wrote, “As a rule, when Dispensationalism arises to dominance, a clear and full exposition of the doctrines of grace has declined.”17 In its century of life, Dispensationalism has been what Dr. Gerstner called spurious Calvinism. At the same time, with the Lordship Controversy, questions of its relationship to historical antinomianism are properly raised. As was shown in the last article, Dispensationalism had its roots in antinomianism. Is the dispensational presupposition antithetical to the Doctrines of Grace and Federalism? Dr. Gerstner sought to answer the question by way of the evaluation of content; below we shall seek an answer as it relates to Dispensationalism’s dogmatic presupposition.

The fundamental presupposition of Dispensationalism is not necessarily antithetical to the Doctrines of Grace. As progressive Dispensationalism has shown, there can be advances within a system of theology without the abandonment of its fundamental presupposition. The Doctrines of Grace are a component of a system of theology much in the same way that fabric makes up a garment. The garment of Dispensationalism is its presupposition; its fabric can be of various weaves. The Doctrines of Grace are not necessarily contingent upon the presuppositions that separate the various systematic theologies existent today. This is borne out by the fact that there have been and continue to be consistent Dispensationalists who are Calvinists. One can be a Calvinist and a Dispensationalist. The presupposition of Dispensationalism does not dictate an Arminian system. This said, it must be noted that the Dispensational system, however, does appear to detract both from progressive revelation and the glory of the work of Christ. The Dispensational presupposition appears to arrest the biblical advance of revelation, due to its already-not-yet view of biblical fulfillment. There are questions regarding the rebuilding of distinctions that have been torn down in Christ. Thus, Dispensationalism can be Calvinistic, but it raises questions regarding the place of Christ’s first advent in biblical revelation. These questions speak to the tension inherent in Dispensationalism itself. Its presupposition necessitates its view of the enduring validity of physical distinction beyond the day of Pentecost.

Dispensationalism has had its influence in virtually every realm of orthodoxy, including the Reformed camp. The number of calvinistic Dispensationalists is growing, yet they remain Dispensationalists, and any advances in dialogue with Federalism or any other system of theology, will continue to progress only within the boundary of their presupposed belief. Differences in eschatology, ecclesiology, soteriology, and Christology will continue due to the restrictive nature of that presupposition. All presuppositions restrict and separate, and it is common for men in dialogue to attack labels, even though labels are simply the remnants of our presuppositions. Even if all labels were abolished and debate addressed in dialogue, clear differences would continue to divide and separate Christians. Dispensationalism is Dispensationalism, even if it is not associated with the early formulations of Dispensational thought. Dispensationalists often take great offense to their name due to disputes in the first part of this passing century. Nonetheless, a Dispensationalist, like it or not, has the title and should not hesitate to use the word to distinguish the clear theological distinctive that all Dispensationalists hold. A Dispensationalist believes God continues to relate to men based upon ethnic particularity into the Christian era and beyond. This will ever be its identifying mark.

What then is Dispensationalism, whether classic, historic, or progressive? It is the premise that God relates to men, in every age, as either Israel or not Israel. Dispensationalism is not Arminianism, Premillennialism, or Antinomianism, or even a system that simply calls various stages of biblical revelation by the term dispensation, any more than federal theology is necessarily legalism, or a system of theology that simply can be equated with the teaching that there are covenants. These theologies may contain such leanings within their framework, but there is no necessary correlation between their presuppositions and these theological distinctions. This does not deny that any given presupposition may naturally lead someone to affirm one of these views. One should not, however, simply equate one with the other without investigation. Keith A. Mathison defines Dispensationalism as “that system of theology which sees a fundamental distinction between Israel and the church. This distinction is the cornerstone of dispensational theology.”18 If we understand the word fundamental as implying that this distinction is pervasive in every assertion and assimilation of dispensational theology, and if we understand the phrase between Israel and the church as implying more than just the fact that Israel was a nation in the old testament Scripture and the church is a body in the new, then the definition is sufficient to account for that cornerstone Mathison seeks to identify. The truly identifying mark of Dispensationalism is not just that it sees a difference between Israel of the flesh and the church, as even Federalism sees such a distinction in God’s administration, but the true mark setting Dispensationalism apart is that it views that distinction as pervasive, enduring, and most importantly, indicative of the manner in which God relates to men. The Dispensationalist claims that, in his eternal plan, God has established a relationship with Israel the nation as an ethnic group, and the distinction is never removed through the ages. Thus a Dispensationalist, in any age, must answer the question of how God relates to men in this way: God relates to men as either Israelites or not Israelites.

1 Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 39.
2 Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational and Non-Dispensational Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 14.
3 Ibid., 20.
4 Curtis L. Crenshaw, Dispensationalism: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow, 7.
5 Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism, 23.
6 Ryrie, 80.
7 Blaising &. Bock, 27.
8 Ibid., 32.
9 Ryrie, 32.
10 Ryrie, 127.
11 Blaising & Bock, 47.
12 Vern Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 7.
13 Blaising &. Bock, 47.
14 Ibid., 48.
15 Robert L. Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism: The Interface Between Dispensational & Non-Dispensational Theology, 29.
16 John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism, (Brentwood: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991), 263.
17 John Zens, Dispensationalism: A Reformed Inquiry Into Its Leading Figures and Features, (Phillisburg: P&R, 1980), 52-53.
18 Keith A. Mathison, Dispensatinalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God, (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1995), 5.

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